A Memory That Worked Overtime
by William Dean Howells
Minver’s brother took down from the top of the low bookshelf a small painting on panel, which he first studied in the obverse, and then turned and contemplated on the back with the same dreamy smile. “I don’t see how that got _here_,” he said, absently.
“Well,” Minver returned, “you don’t expect _me_ to tell you, except on the principle that any one would naturally know more about anything of yours than you would.” He took it from his brother and looked at the front of it. “It isn’t bad. It’s pretty good!” He turned it round. “Why, it’s one of old Blakey’s! How did _you_ come by it?”
“Stole it, probably,” Minver’s brother said, still thoughtfully. Then with an effect of recollecting: “No, come to think of it,” he added, “Blakey gave it to me.” The Minvers played these little comedies together, quite as much to satisfy their tenderness for each other as to give their friends pleasure. “Think you’re the only painter that gets me to take his truck as a gift? He gave it to me, let’s see, about ten years ago, when he was trying to make a die of it, and failed; I thought he would succeed. But it’s been in my wife’s room nearly ever since, and what I can’t understand is what she’s doing with it down here.”
“Probably to make trouble for you, somehow,” Minver suggested.
“No, I don’t think it’s _that_, quite,” his brother returned, with a false air of scrupulosity, which was part of their game with each other. He looked some more at the picture, and then he glanced from it at me. “There’s a very curious story connected with that sketch.”
“Oh, well, tell it,” Minver said. “Tell it! I suppose I can stand it again. Acton’s never heard it, I believe. But you needn’t make a show of sparing him. I _couldn’t_ stand that.”
“I certainly haven’t heard the story,” I said, “and if I had I would be too polite to own it.”
Minver’s brother looked towards the open door over his shoulder, and Minver interpreted for him: “She’s not coming. I’ll give you due warning.”
“It was before we were married, but not much before, and the picture was a sort of wedding present for my wife, though Blakey made a show of giving it to me. Said he had painted it for me, because he had a prophetic soul, and felt in his bones that I was going to want a picture of the place where I first met her. You see, it’s the little villa her mother had taken that winter on the Viale Petrarca, just outside of Florence. It _was_ the first place I met her, but not the last.”
“Don’t be obvious,” Minver ordered.
His brother did not mind him. “I thought it was mighty nice of Blakey. He was barking away, all the time he was talking, and when he wasn’t coughing he was so hoarse he could hardly speak above a whisper; but he kept talking on, and wishing me happy, and fending off my gratitude, while he was finding a piece of manila paper to wrap the sketch in, and then hunting for a piece of string to tie it. When he handed it to me at last, he gasped out: ‘I don’t mind her knowing that I partly meant it as the place where _she_ first met _you_, too. I’m not ashamed of it as a bit of color. Anyway, I sha’n’t live to do anything better.’
“‘Oh, yes, you will,’ I came back in that lying way we think is kind with dying people. I suppose it is; anyway, it turned out all right with Blakey, as he’ll testify if you look him up when you go to Florence. By the way, he lives in that villa _now_.”
“No?” I said. “How charming!”
Minver’s brother went on: “I made up my mind to be awfully careful of that picture, and not let it out of my hand till I left it with ‘her’ mother, to be put among the other wedding presents that were accumulating at their house in Exeter Street. So I held it on my lap going in by train from Lexington, where Blakey lived, and when I got out at the old Lowell Depot–North Station, now–and got into the little tinkle-tankle horse-car that took me up to where I was to get the Back Bay car–Those were the prehistoric times before trolleys, and there were odds in horse-cars. We considered the blue-painted Back Bay cars very swell. _You_ remember them?” he asked Minver.
“Not when I can help it,” Minver answered. “When I broke with Boston, and went to New York, I burnt my horse-cars behind me, and never wanted to know what they looked like, one from another.”
“Well, as I was saying,” Minver’s brother went on, without regarding his impatriotism, “when I got into the horse-car at the depot, I rushed for a corner seat, and I put the picture, with its face next the car-end, between me and the wall, and kept my hand on it; and when I changed to the Back Bay car, I did the same thing. There was a florist’s just there, and I couldn’t resist some Mayflowers in the window; I was in that condition, you know, when flowers seemed to be made for her, and I had to take her own to her wherever I found them. I put the bunch between my knees, and kept one hand on it, while I kept my other hand on the picture at my side. I was feeling first-rate, and when General Filbert got in after we started, and stood before me hanging by a strap and talking down to me, I had the decency to propose giving him my seat, as he was about ten years older.”
“Sure?” Minver asked.
“Well, say fifteen. I don’t pretend to be a chicken, and never did. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Said I had a bundle, and winked at the bunch of Mayflowers. We had such a jolly talk that I let the car carry me a block by and had to get out at Gloucester and run back to Exeter. I rang, and, when the maid came to the door, there I stood with nothing but the Mayflowers in my hand.”
“Good _coup de theatre_,” Minver jeered. “Curtain?”
His brother disdained reply, or was too much absorbed in his tale to think of any. “When the girl opened the door and I discovered my fix I burst out, ‘Good Lord!’ and I stuck the bunch of flowers at her, and turned and ran. I suppose I must have had some notion of overtaking the car with my picture in it. But the best I could do was to let the next one overtake me several blocks down Marlborough Street, and carry me to the little jumping-off station on Westchester Park, as we used to call it in those days, at the end of the Back Bay line.
“As I pushed into the railroad office, I bet myself that the picture would not be there, and, sure enough, I won.”
“You were always a lucky dog,” Minver said.
“But the man in charge was very encouraging, and said it was sure to be turned in; and he asked me what time the car had passed the corner of Gloucester Street. I happened to know, and then he said, Oh yes, that conductor was a substitute, and he wouldn’t be on again till morning; then he would be certain to bring the picture with him. I was not to worry, for it would be all right. Nothing left in the Back Bay cars was ever lost; the character of the abutters was guarantee for that, and they were practically the only passengers. The conductors and the drivers were as honest as the passengers, and I could consider myself in the hands of friends.
“He was so reassuring that I went away smiling at my fears, and promising to be round bright and early, as soon, the official suggested–the morrow being Sunday–as soon as the men and horses had had their baked beans.
“Still, after dinner, I had a lurking anxiety, which I turned into a friendly impulse to go and call on Mrs. Filbert, whom I really owed a bread-and-butter visit, and who, I knew, would not mind my coming in the evening. The general, she said, had been telling her of our pleasant chat in the car, and would be glad to smoke his after-dinner cigar with me, and why wouldn’t I come into the library?
“We were so very jolly together, all three, that I made light of my misadventure about the picture. The general inquired about the flowers first. He remembered the flowers perfectly, and hoped they were acceptable; he thought he remembered the picture, too, now I mentioned it; but he would not have noticed it so much, there by my side, with my hand on it. I would be sure to get it. He gave several instances, personal to him and his friends, of recoveries of lost articles; it was really astonishing how careful the horse-car people were, especially on the Back Bay line. I would find my picture all right at the Westchester Park station in the morning; never fear.
“I feared so little that I slept well, and even overslept; and I went to get my picture quite confidently, and I could hardly believe it had not been turned in yet, though the station-master told me so. The substitute conductor had not seen it, but more than likely it was at the stables, where the cleaners would have found it in the car and turned it in. He was as robustly cheerful about it as ever, and offered to send an inquiry by the next car; but I said, Why shouldn’t I go myself; and he said that was a good idea. So I went, and it was well I did, for my picture was not there, and I had saved time by going. It was not there, but the head man said I need not worry a mite about it; I was certain to get it sooner or later; it would be turned in, to a dead certainty. We became rather confidential, and I went so far as to explain about wanting to make my inquiries very quietly on Blakey’s account: he would be annoyed if he heard of its loss, and it might react unfavorably on his health.
“The head man said that was so; and he would tell me what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to the Company’s General Offices in Milk Street, and tell them about it. That was where everything went as a last resort, and he would bet any money that I would see my picture there the first thing I got inside the door. I thanked him with the fervor I thought he merited, and said I would go at once.
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘you don’t want to go to-day, you know. The offices are not open Sunday. And to-morrow’s a holiday. But you’re all right. You’ll find your picture there, don’t you have any doubts about it.’
“That was my next to last Sunday supper with my wife, before she became my wife, at her mother’s house, and I went to the feast with as little gayety as I suppose any young man ever carried to a supper of the kind. I was told, afterwards, that my behavior up to a certain point was so suggestive either of secret crime or of secret regret, that the only question was whether they should have in the police or I should be given back my engagement ring and advised to go. Luckily I ceased to bear my anguish just in time.
“The fact is, I could not stand it any longer, and as soon as I was alone with her I made a clean breast of it; partially clean, that is: I suppose a fellow never tells _all_ to a girl, if he truly loves her.” Minver’s brother glanced round at us and gathered the harvest of our approving smiles. “I said to her, ‘I’ve been having a wedding present.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you’ve come as near having no use for a wedding present as anybody _I_ know. Was having a wedding present what made you so gloomy at supper? Who gave it to you, anyway?’ ‘Old Blakey.’ ‘A painting?’ ‘Yes–a sketch.’ ‘What of?’ This was where I qualified. I said: ‘Oh, just one of those Sorrento things of his.’ You see, if I told her that it was the villa where we first met, and then said I had left it in the horse-car, she would take it as proof positive that I did not really care anything about her or I never could have forgotten it.”
“You were wise as far as you went,” Minver said. “Go on.”
“Well, I told her the whole story circumstantially: how I had kept the sketch religiously in my lap in the train, and then held it down with my hand all the while beside me in the first horse-car, and did the same thing in the Back Bay car I changed to; and felt of it the whole time I was talking with General Filbert, and then left it there when I got out to leave the flowers at her door, when the awful fact came over me like a flash. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘Norah said you poked the flowers at her without a word, and she had to guess they were for me.’
“I had got my story pretty glib by this time; I had reeled it off with increasing particulars to the Westchester Park station-master, and the head man at the stables, and General Filbert, and I was so letter-perfect that I had a vision of the whole thing, especially of my talking with the general while I kept my hand on the picture–and then all was dark.
“At the end she said we must advertise for the picture. I said it would kill Blakey if he saw it; and she said: No matter, _let_ it kill him; it would show him that we valued his gift, and were moving heaven and earth to find it; and, at any rate, it would kill _me_ if I kept myself in suspense. I said I should not care for that; but with her sympathy I guessed I could live through the night, and I was sure I should find the thing at the Milk Street office in the morning.
“‘Why,’ said she, ‘to-morrow it’ll be shut!’ and then I didn’t really know what to say, and I agreed to drawing up an advertisement then and there, so as not to lose an instant’s time after I had been at the Milk Street office on Tuesday and found the picture had not been turned in. She said I could dictate the advertisement and she would write it down, and she asked: ‘Which one of his Sorrento things was it? You must describe it exactly, you know.’ That made me feel awfully, and I said I was not going to have my next-to-last Sunday evening with her spoiled by writing advertisements; and I got away, somehow, with all sorts of comforting reassurances from her. I could see that she was feigning them to encourage me.
“The next morning, I simply could not keep away from the Milk Street office, and my unreasonable impatience was rewarded by finding it at least ajar, if not open. There was the nicest kind of a young fellow there, and he said he was not officially present; but what could he do for me? Then I told him the whole story, with details I had not thought of before; and he was just as enthusiastic about my getting my picture as the Westchester Park station-master or the head man of the stables. It was morally certain to be turned in, the first thing in the morning; but he would take a description of it, and send out inquiries to all the conductors and drivers and car-cleaners, and make a special thing of it. He entered into the spirit of the affair, and I felt that I had such a friend in him that I confided a little more and hinted at the double interest I had in the picture. I didn’t pretend that it was one of Blakey’s Sorrento things, but I gave him a full and true description of it, with its length, breadth, and thickness, in exact measure.”
Here Minver’s brother stopped and lost himself in contemplation of the sketch, as he held it at arm’s-length.
“Well, did you get your picture?” I prompted, after a moment.
“Oh yes,” he said, with a quick turn towards me. “This is it. A District Messenger brought it round the first thing Tuesday morning. He brought it,” Minver’s brother added, with a certain effectiveness, “from the florist’s, where I had stopped to get those Mayflowers. I had left it there.”
“You’ve told it very well, this time, Joe,” Minver said. “But Acton here is waiting for the psychology. Poor old Wanhope ought to be here,” he added to me. He looked about for a match to light his pipe, and his brother jerked his head in the direction of the chimney.
“Box on the mantel. Yes,” he sighed, “that was really something very curious. You see, I had invented the whole history of the case from the time I got into the Back Bay car with my flowers. Absolutely nothing had happened of all I had remembered till I got out of the car. I did not put the picture beside me at the end of the car; I did not keep my hand on it while I talked with General Filbert; I did not leave it behind me when I left the car. Nothing of the kind happened. I had already left it at the florist’s, and that whole passage of experience which was so vividly and circumstantially stamped in my memory that I related it four or five times over, and would have made oath to every detail of it, was pure invention, or, rather, it was something less positive: the reflex of the first half of my horse-car experience, when I really did put the picture in the corner next me, and did keep my hand on it.”
“Very strange,” I was beginning, but just then the door opened and Mrs. Minver came in, and I was presented.
She gave me a distracted hand, as she said to her husband: “Have you been telling the story about that picture again?” He was still holding it. “Silly!”
She was a mighty pretty woman, but full of vim and fun and sense.
“It’s one of the most curious freaks of memory I ever heard of, Mrs. Minver,” I said.
Then she showed that she was proud of it, though she had called him silly. “Have you told,” she demanded of her husband, “how oddly your memory behaved about the subject of the picture, too?”
“I have again eaten that particular piece of humble-pie,” Minver’s brother replied.
“Well,” she said to me, “_I_ think he was simply so possessed with the awfulness of having lost the picture that all the rest took place prophetically, but unconsciously.”
“By a species of inverted presentiment?” I suggested.
“Yes,” she assented, slowly, as if the formulation were new to her, but not unacceptable. “Something of that kind. I never heard of anybody else having it.”
Minver had got his pipe alight, and was enjoying it. “_I_ think Joe was simply off his nut, for the time being.”